The Lalish Theatre – The “Visible” Voice

“The voice not only for the ears, but also for the eye. Sing, so that I see you act.”
Nigar Hasib

The traditional European – American Theatre, which has always been closely connected with a written, dramaturgical text, has generally limited the role of the voice to the declamation of that text, through the by the actors and actresses articulated words. Used mainly in the service of verbal dialogues with diverse contents and meanings, the full spectrum of the voice has often been underestimated or disregarded.
But if one has the opportunity to witness one of the performances of the Lalish Theatre of Vienna, one may experience, that the voice is so much more than just the articulation of words or the declamation of a memorized text. To be a spectator in a performance of such a theatre means to infinitely have experienced the power and the veritable strength of the human voice. A voice, that remains hidden in the depths of the human soul and in the labyrinths of the human body like a submerged “vocal Atlantis”. And the two “primitive creators” of this theatre, Nigar Hasib and Shamal Amin from Kurdistan, with their ethnological and anthropological expeditions through ancient cultures and civilizations, are in search of this “vocal Atlantis”. With an unusual love and passion they conduct their daily researches, since years devoted to the process of discovering the mysteries of the human voice. And far from the mundane Austria and Vienna, that they seem to have nothing in common with except for the fact that they live and work there, and with their “primitive yodeling”, which often appears to be so similar to the Albanian invocations or the so called “over the shoulder songs”, they seem to ask one single, ancient question: “What is theatre?”

In an almost empty room, without scenery or décor, but with only one single, white background draping, two chair-like pieces of wood and a metal bowl, with static lighting without shading, in black, sometimes also in black and red costumes without the classical, flowery decorations, without make-up or servant character masks, with simply tied together or free-flowing shoulder-long hair, barefoot and feet and toes accentuating the sensitive and precise expressions during running, moving or just touching the floor. All that together with the sometimes explosive and sometimes melancholic voices, whose color and rhythm coordinates whole feelings and body movements, creates an exotic view before the eyes of the spectators, not unlike the primitive cave drawings of the stone age or the veiled view one gets by reading antique tragedies or Homeric or ancient Sumero - Babylonian epos. At a moment when the rhythm of the ocean-waves breezes through the mane of her hair, Clytemnestra may suddenly appear in the person of Nigar Hasib, while, not far away, in the guise of Shamal Amin, the frightening figure of Agamemnon might stand in front of you, while the startling sound of a voice dashes against a rock. But these images change instantaneously, as Shamal Amin may reappear as Gilgamesh or even as a disturbed Ulysses, while the alarmed Penelope, embodied by Nigar Hasib, lets a handful of Water run through her hand into the metallic bowl. And so it infinitely goes on until they appear to us to have returned to their own identity, only slip into “another” one again. It’s not even important in which space or at what point in time this takes place. A seemingly empty room later becomes a space full of voices and action, centered within “nowhere and everywhere”, in a time of “never and always”.

But what kind of theatre is this, where the acting persons can simultaneously be “someone” and “no one”? What voices are these, which at times can be so explosive and at other times sad, sometimes frightening, then melancholic, caressing or erotic, then explosive again, thundering, summoning, stunning, destructive; capable of anchoring all feelings, senses and every part of our body? What sort of a “new language” is this, with so many “songs”, tones, syllables, words and texts that often can’t be decoded? Finally, what kind of “theatre” is this, where there seems to be no connection between songs, scenes, situations and the story itself?

These are only some questions, which could be answered diversely, depending on the point of view. The essence of these answers stays mainly in relation to the way in which the Lalish Theatre employs the voice, how it is seen and used, from which part of the soul or which body part it emanates and how it is placed. All of these facts encourage us to think thoroughly about the infinite possibilities of the human voice on the one hand, and on the other about the limitations and restraints, which the present day human being has imposed upon its voice und the pressures of urbanization.

In the Lalish Theatre the voice is not only something to hear, but it is something visible, something that is able to act. Nigar Hasib says: “The voice not only for the ears, but also for the eye. Sing, so that I see you act.”  But how can one “see” a voice? Different from the conventional European-American theatre, where the function of the voice is regarded as something to serve a dramaturgical dialogue – be it in the form of a conversation or an exchange of replies; whereby the intonation, the feeling, the action and gesture of the performers is dependent on their understanding of these contents – the Lalish Theatre, which is completely liberated of these stereotypical conventions, allows the voice to break out into all of it’s possible dimensions, be it through the full power of thundering invocations or coloring, nuances, vibrations and the trembling sighs of the soul. Spontaneously the voice awakens and guides feelings, transforms the mimic, gesture and posture of the whole body of the performer, which offers poetic contents in gesture, movement and action. So it becomes the voice that provides the body with impulses. Through the voice and the body’s movements and actions, independent from presence or absence of understandable or incomprehensible words, we try to recognize, decode and designate them according to form and content in a semiotic context. In that way the voice becomes audio-visualized, which means that we not only hear it, but can also “see“ it. Nigar Hasib more precisely describes this process as follows: “Songs create our plot, but our actions don’t present the texts of our songs. Each song, each acoustical act, results in precise bodily movements. The body is in direct relation and connected to “life and sound” and its action becomes organic instead of technical. In that way the dramatic content, the act, is not only part of the body or just part of the voice, but it is part of both of them and so allows for a harmony to evolve. Because the harmony is the most original source of any form of expression.” According to Shamal Amin, this results in the attempt create a “flowing space”, wherein the voices and the songs can be transformed into contentment, and “ the voice becomes similar to an enactment, which allows for the discovery of the new.”

The songs, the texts, the words and their content present neither an end in itself, nor do they serve as a directional marker in a performance of the Lalish Theatre. With their exhortations or their sighs, their onomatopoeia and in spite of their independence from meaning or content which they may or may not offer, many of them originating from extinct tribes or languages long forgotten, the songs of the Lalish Theatre contain the manifoldness of human voice and body. According to Shamal Amin and Nigar Hasib themselves, “it’s a new language, not a linguistic language or the so called artistic language of the world theatre, which generally is primarily associated with representation, with things, with subjects and stories.” In the Lalish Theatre there are no performances in the classical sense of the word. The performances of this theatre do not lean on the classical pattern of plots with a beginning and a development and a resolving or ending. In this theatre everyone finds his or her own story. These stories function independently from one another. There is neither the need to tie them to one another, nor to present a single story with a specific content. In other words, “songs and voices are not being employed to deepen a dramatic plot or to connect two scenes to one another.” The songs cause certain actions or adapt to a specific situation.

It deserves a special mention that the performers of the Lalish Theatre do not play roles. Neither do they neither impersonate someone, nor do they attempt to emulate, mimic or copy. They represent themselves. Furthermore there are no leading or minor parts in this theatre. Basically everyone is a leading performer, author, director and actor all at the same time. Accordingly, the performance evolves from a collective creation. It seems that intuition, instinct and desire itself create an acoustic and bodily gravitational field, which offers enough room for the ideas, the talent, and the creativity of all involved.
This goes beyond the scope of the notion of “being an author” or a “director”, an “actor” or of a “show”. A performance of the Lalish Theatre gives one the opportunity to see more than one spectacle. Likewise one could infer that in that theatre, everyone gets an own story, an own narration as well as an own performance.

In any case, the voice-research of the Lalish Theatre does not concentrate on just one or several cultures or the identities of different nations or on primitive tribal culture. This research also cannot be associated or identified with any particular period of time, language, place or civilization. It is freed of all possible obstacles, accepts everything, offers an equal chance to all and is interested in the diversity of all the forms. This, without a doubt, proves the praxis and the experience of this theatre, which, freed of all prejudices, is open to and recognizes all of the various cultures values, relevant to the stage. The voice and body-techniques of the eastern cultures and of Northern Anatolia are of equal importance to this theatre as those of the western culture. Therefore, the openly shown interest for the Albanian Culture on the part of Nigar Hasib and Shamal Amin during their visit to the Kosovo, cannot be rated as a mere coincidence. The Albanian culture, rich in ethnical substance, offers an impressive discovery for their continuing work. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, if some ancient Albanian songs and rituals will serve them as an inspiration for one of their future artistic creations. It would make a lot of sense if such an inspiration would serve in the research and the finding of new ways of creating theatre. In that case, the Lalish Theatre would again be in the position to transform yet another audible voice into one that would then also appear to be a ”visible” one.

Author: Bekim LUMI, Albanian theatre director and theatre pedagogue (about the Lalish Theatre Laboratory’s research project 2005-2006: “The Beginning of Speech III”, presented at the Zephirus Alternative Theatre Festival, Crete/Greece, August 2006. 

Translated from the Albanian into German by Gonxhe BOSHTRAKAJ, media-scientist.
Translated into English by Hans Echnaton Schano, theatre director.